Grey Tabby Cats: Facts and Frequently Asked Questions

The grey tabby is not a specific breed of cat but is a common striped coat pattern that is found in purebred and mixed (random bred) cats. 

Cats have six basic coat patterns [1]. Solid, tabby, bi-colour, pointed, tortoiseshell and tricolour. The tabby pattern is thought to have come from the African wildcat (Felis lybica) and consists of two components. 

  • Background: Alternating agouti hairs are made up of bands of black and yellow (brown tabbies) or black and off-white (grey tabbies).
  • Pattern: Melanistic overlay of bars, spots, swirls and rosettes.

The agouti gene (symbolised by an uppercase A) is dominant over its mutant form non-agouti (lowercase a). The cat carries two sets of genes, inherited from the mother and father. If the cat carries a copy of the A gene, it will be tabby, in order for it to be non-tabby (a solid colour, such as black), it must inherit two copies of the recessivea’ gene, one from each parent.

  • AA – Tabby
  • Aa – Tabby
  • aa – Non-tabby

The silver/grey background is caused by an inhibitor gene

The silver is caused by the melanin inhibitor gene I/i, which suppresses the development of pheomelanin (yellow pigment) from the agouti areas of the coat. Normally, the background colour has areas of yellow and black banding (ticking) along the hair shaft. The absence of yellow makes the black tabby pattern stand out against the pale background.

Occasionally, the yellow colour can be seen in parts of the coat, known as tarnishing. Breeders have worked hard to eliminate this by selective breeding, and tarnishing is most frequently seen in random-bred cats.

There are four grey tabby patterns

The coat pattern of the grey tabby occurs in three patterns, mackerel, classic, spotted and ticked.

Mackerel tabby: Also known as ‘tiger cats‘, the mackerel is the original wild-type pattern and consists of a dark stripe along the back and a fishbone pattern down the side of the cat.  Mackerel tabby is the most common tabby pattern and is dominant, therefore the cat only needs to inherit one copy of the Tm gene to be mackerel tabby.

Grey and white mackerel tabby

Classic tabby: Also known as blotched or marbled, the classic tabby pattern is recessive to mackerel, which means the cat must inherit a copy of the classic tabby gene from each parent to have the pattern. Grey classic tabby coats consist of a silver background with sworls of dark and a circular bullseye on the flanks. The classic tabby pattern first emerged in the middle ages.

Silver classic tabby

Spotted: The spotted grey tabby is a variant of the mackerel tabby however a modifier gene breaks the characteristic mackerel stripes up into spots.

Grey spotted tabby cat

Ticked: Also known as agouti tabby, the ticked tabby cats have a gene that hides the tabby striping, leaving only the underlying agouti colouration. Each hair has bands of colour along the hair shaft. There is little to no striping on the body, but some faint fine barring may be present on the face, legs and tail, this may be more apparent if the cat is heterozygous, meaning its genetic makeup is Ta/Tm or Ta/tb

Grey tabby cat eye colours

All grey tabby cats are born with blue eyes, this gradually changes during the first few weeks of life. Older kittens and adult grey tabbies can have eye colours that range from pale gold to deep green.

Grey tabby personality

The personality of a grey tabby cat can vary depending on the breed as well as early experiences as a kitten. Kittens who have a lot of positive human interaction from an early age are more likely to grow into happy and well-adjusted adults.

Grey tabbies in purebreds and random-bred cats

Silver Bengal cat

The default ‘wild type’ pattern is the brown tabby, but the grey tabby coat colour is present in both random-bred as well as different breeds of cat. Although all coat colours and patterns are permitted, the American Shorthair is most well known for its grey classic tabby coat, the Ocicat for its spotted coat and Bengal for its marbled or spotted/rosette pattern. Other breeds which can have the grey tabby pattern include the Munchkin, Scottish Fold, Devon Rex, Cornish Rex, Norwegian Forest cat and Maine Coon. The Siamese or Colourpoint Shorthair may also have the grey tabby pattern as points on the face, legs and tail.

Grey tabby cats in history

Drawing of a silver (grey) tabby cat from Our Cats and All About Them – Harrison Weir, 1889.

Harrison Weir, the father of the cat fancy and president of the National Cat Club, talks about the silver (grey) tabby in his book Our Cats and All About Them, dated 1889. He writes:

The ordinary dark tabby the same way as the brown, and so also the blue or silver, only the ground colour should be of a pale, soft, blue colour – not the slightest tint of brown in it. The clearer, the lighter, and brighter the blue the better, bearing in mind always that the bands should be of a jet black, sharply and very clearly defined. [2]

Where does the word tabby come from?

The name tabby comes originates from the seventeenth-century French word tabis, which itself originated from atabi (or attābiyy), a type of silk that was manufactured in Al-ʿAttābiyya, a quarter of Baghdad district which was named after Ummayad Governor of Mecca, Attab ibn Asid. This silk was exported to England and on one occasion its patterns were compared to the markings on what was then known as the striped cat or tiger cat. As a result, these cats soon became known as tabby cats, which was then shortened to tabby.

Harrison Weir goes on to say:

The word tabby is derived from a kind of taffeta, or ribbed silk, which when calendered or what is now termed ‘watered’ is by that process covered with wavy lines. This stuff, in bygone times, was often called “tabby” hence the cat with lines or markings on its fur was called a “tabby” cat. But it might also, one would suppose, with as much justice, be called a taffety cat, unless the calendering of “taffety” caused it to become “tabby”. Certain it is that the word tabby only referred to the markings or stripes, not the absolute colour, for in “Wit and Drollery” (1682), P. 343, is the following:

“Her petticoat of satin,

Her gown of crimson tabby”

The tabby was also known as the brinded cat, the brindled cat, or the tiger cat. [3]

National tabby day

The United States of America celebrates National Tabby Day on 30th April every year.

Frequently asked questions

Are grey tabby cats rare?

The grey tabby cat isn’t as common as the default brown tabby cat, but they are not rare.

What breed are grey (silver) tabby cats?

Grey tabby is a coat colour and pattern, not a breed. Most grey tabby cats are domestic shorthairs or domestic longhairs (which means they are not purebred), but grey tabby is also common in many purebred cats.

The American Shorthair is recognised for its stunning grey tabby coat.

Silver (grey) American Shorthair

How long do grey tabby cats live?

Most cats, including the grey tabby cat, live for between 12-15 years. Feeding a well-balanced quality cat food as well as regular veterinary visits may contribute to a longer lifespan.

Grey tabbies can have long hair or short hair

The grey tabby cat is most common in shorthaired cats, but can also occur in cats with long coats, especially purebreds. 

Meaning behind the M on the tabby’s forehead

All tabbies have an M on their forehead and there are several theories as to how this happened. 

  1. The baby Jesus began to shiver on the night he was born, the virgin Mary wrapped Jesus in blankets, but he continued to cry.  She laid him in his manger and he continued to cry. A tabby cat came along, and jumped into the manger and lay beside Jesus, purring loudly and the baby stopped crying. As a sign of gratitude, Mary drew an M on the cat’s forehead. There are different versions of this story, but a common theme is that the cat comforted the baby, after Mary and several farm animals had failed to stop Jesus crying. Interestingly, there is no mention of cats in the bible, so I’m not sure how this story has been shared. 
  2. A snake crawled into the sleeve of Prophet Muhammad’s robe, and a cat quickly killed it. The Prophet affectionately stroked the back of the cat three times giving cats the ability to land on their feet, and placed his hand on the forehead, leaving his initial M as a sign of love for cats. 
  3. Muezza was said to be Prophet Muhammad’s favourite cat, and one day, while preparing for prayer, he found a cat sleeping on the sleeve of his robe. Instead of waking the cat, he used a pair of scissors to cut off the sleeve. 

Are grey tabby cats always female?

The grey tabby coat pattern isn’t sex-linked like the orange colour, and a cat only has to inherit one copy of the I (inhibitor) gene and one copy of the A (agouti) from either parent to be a grey tabby.

References

[1] Vella, C. M. (1999). Robinson’s genetics for cat breeders and veterinarians. Butterworth-Heinemann.

[2] Weir, H. (1889). Our cats and all about them. Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

[3]Weir, H. (1889). Our cats and all about them. Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

[4] Morris, D. (1997). Cat World. Penguin Group.